Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Stuck in the middle

Coming home from Austin TX I had a 3 1/2 hour layover in Atlanta. Post-Christmas Day 2009 that seems like not such a big deal. Restaurant opportunities in airports have improved greatly since 9/11, and we expect that in the future, as we arrive 4 hours in advance of flights, we’ll have time for 10 course French dining. But to return to my layover, as I finally settled down at the gate, the expanse of windows on the opposite wall gave onto the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen. The entire sky glowed red-orange, and silhouetted in the foreground, prehistoric shapes moved, the blackened tails of Delta’s jetliners.

On the Atlanta-Portland leg of my journey, travelers were reading books. Not Kindles, but bonafide tree-derived books. As a portable means of entertainment, books still have cachet. You can hold them, you can write in them, you can loan them to friends. They are so much more portable than the stone tablets that were once in vogue. As someone who has been plagued by eyestrain since college, I have avoided small electronic screens, and yet, the fun of Bakugan and manga lead me to believe that VOOKS may be the now big thing. If you’re not familiar with VOOKS you can learn more by clicking on VOOKS. Download them for your iPhone or the web, get fit in 90 seconds, cook Japanese and reinvent beauty, in multisensory experiences that work in the same way dreams do, leading you from one strange landscape to another.

Back to that strange landscape out the airport window – among all the waiting travellers, there was only one (besides me) who paid any attention to the sunset at all, and even the fact that he went to the window and photographed it was not enough to cause the people around him to look up.

Monday, December 07, 2009

To Plant a Tree

To plant a tree in rocky soil, every day dig the hole a little wider, a little deeper. For a small person with just a spade and a limited amount of time to spend each day, there’s no way to do it all at once. What kind of tree should it be? A big branchy tree like an oak or an elm, a tree for the ages. The metaphors for art and life are obvious.

Come inside, look at the books and magazines on the table and floor, and write down the titles of those on the tops of the piles. The Wild Braid, The Lightning Field, L’Homme nu, The Language Instinct, Modern Painters, Bulgaria, Art on Paper, Manzoni (with an image of himself thumbing his nose at the world), The Immense Journey, The Doctrine of Recognition. Pretty representative: a naked human standing in a field of lightning rods trying to communicate with other humans, hopeful but with an attitude.

Now pull out one of these books, Stanley Kunitz’s The Wild Braid and open it to a random quote. “I associate the garden with the whole experience of being alive, and so, there is nothing in the range of human experience that is separate from what the garden can signify in its eagerness and its insistence, and in its driving energy to live – to grow, to bear fruit.”

Oak tree courtesy of the website it's nature.

Monday, September 14, 2009

View of Mount Katahdin

I’ve been traveling around to the Bowery, Chelsea, Soho, Japan, China, Afghanistan, Brooklyn and Italy, the top of Mount Katahdin, and also Winnipeg. Not to mention a Grand Tour through Europe. As you can imagine this has meant a lot of walking. I’ve also vegged in my apartment for hours at a time, thinking only about sediments, the mechanics of plate tectonics, and wthether Neanderthals spoke as we do. It seems they did not, and that what defines us as human is the ability to express thought through complex language structures.

In the tradition of Shingon, or Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, the ineffable is beyond language and can only be expressed through mandalas, mantras, and mudras. We are brought to point of contact with other worlds through meditating on paintings and through phsyical position, and this is how I came to the foot of Mount Katahdin while standing on Manhattan ground. Sam Cady’s constructed paintings, on view at Mary Ryan, combine the precision of Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e prints with the spatial perspective of Chinese landscapes, while at the same time being firmly part of the Western landscape tradition. In the view of Mount Katahdin for instance, the shape of the canvas is an inverted trapezoid in which the rhythm of color runs from the slightly inflected dark blue of Chimney Pond at the painting’s base to the profusion of detail and light on the Knife Edge at the top. The perspective is precise, the observation of detail so uncanny that as viewer, I seemed to stand exactly at the bottom of the mountain. (You can see the painting if you follow the link below.) In another canvas that is a narrow horizontal strip of island and water, I was further down in the water, as if swimming or in a boat. A very small canvas captures the distance, the temperature and the great size of the iceberg that is its subject. To experience these landscapes as Cady has done and intends for us to do, we stand with him and with them, and the satisfaction of this communication is that as artist Cady allows us the opportunity to do equal work.

The show at Mary Ryan is up through October 17. Japanese mandalas are at the Met through November 29 in the Sackler Wing. Katahdin image courtesy of Wikepedia.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Art Tours

If the Artist is Tour Guide where are we going? Into the past, into the future, into an altered present? Art is the craft of aesthetics, a Sunday kind of love, a discipline that requires total commitment. Last night I went down to the Lower East Side to an opening where the artist purported to give us a look into the past of Romantic landscape painting. He’d made an installation out of lots and lots of candy colored striping variously suspended from the ceiling and applied to the walls, and also fuzzy digitized images, and it was so fun to hear the popgun pops of taped down mounds of bubble wrap on the floor as we walked across them. The artist here was tour guide through the accumulations of his studio, advertising a look at Caspar David Friedrich-land, where once real hunters in Austrian get-ups might have been shooting boar. But the tour was a flop. The emperor’s new clothes had more going for them.

Thence to Soho to an exhibition that was nothing but paintings, and this one a lesson in why painting second-hand Romanticism is an irrelevant practice. Here the tour bus loaded with artisans never even left the station. It makes no sense to paint what’s already been painted, and it’s equally true that not every experiment with installations is of interest. What’s lacking in both cases is discipline and rigorous editing so that the end result has something to tell us. All dedicated artists seek an audience, all serious viewers want to come away with something more than entertainment. But it’s failure of imagination that allows us as viewers and artists to believe that either the viewer or the artist should do all the work. Just as a profusion of tweets is not a novel, neither does an unedited stream of video nor the detritus of the studio constitute art. Some sort of intelligent shape has to be imposed on it by the artist in order to convey a message to the viewer. Let us not venture further into whether the results are Vermeer or Shakespeare or not, but only remark that while everyone has a nugget of creative instinct, only some have what it takes to pan for gold.

As I finished this blog, into my inbox popped an invitation to what I guarantee will be a tour through some serious art and first-rate painting by Katherine Bradford,Meghan Brady, Cassie Jones, Don Voisine, Mark Wethli and others. Be sure to check out Chunky Monkey at Red Flagg in Chelsea next Thursday night, September 17, 6-8 P.M. and through October 17. Money will be refunded if you're not absolutely satisfied.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Ekphrasis at UMF

“Reading drawings is like leafing through a book for answers, or turning a kaleidoscope until the bits fall into place.” So I wrote for my installation reading the landscape at the University of Maine/Farmington eleven years ago. I still believe that the landscape can be read, that it organizes itself in signs and equivalences, that every branch and every evening primrose is doing something that has meaning for each of us.

During a period of years from 2001 through 2005, I did some 250 gestural drawings of periwinkle shells and flowers. Those drawings have existed as discrete images until now, when in grouping them for the ekphrasis exhibition at Farmington I have been mindful of making connections between the purely visual and the literary. Sometimes the drawings tell their own stories. Other groupings are inspired by poems, as Buson’s haiku: “peony scattering/have piled up/two-three petals.” For the second time in my installation work, I have found inspiration in John Ashbery’s poetry. This time, I borrowed a title from “Some Trees” which begins “These are amazing: each/joining a neighbor, as though speech were a still performance.”

The methodology of each drawing was also simple performance. I laid down an ink or watercolor wash, dropped an ink line or periwinkle shells into it, and recorded the movement of its happening. The gestures are a calligraphy that has correspondences in Asian art, so the exhibition will include a Chinese scholar’s desk that the Curator, Sarah Maline, has very kindly offered include. I am also indebted to Sarah for the opportunity to bring a new dimension and new vocabulary to my work about the landscape.
And next week, possibly, I'll have images from the show.

Exhibition dates: September 3-24, with a reception on September 10.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ekphrasis: Nature’s Spreadsheet

Ekphrasis: a lucid self-contained explanation or description; the word made visible; words that describe something visual; by extension, visual art that is poetic or deals in words. . . . . The University of Maine at Farmington will explore the concept in a September show that includes my work along with that of five other artists and poets. In 1998, I mounted an installation at UMF entitled “Reading the Landscape.” My paper articulations were overwritten with text, which added content to the gestural imagery that in turn formed an intermediate layer on paper recycled from previous installations. This time I’m foregoing the text. Instead I am using gestural drawings to make storyboards whose narratives will depend on subtle variations – the bend of stems, the dispersion of periwinkle shells on ink wash.

I still believe that landscape is best understood as a written phenomenon, but I have become more attuned, to paraphrase something I read years ago, to the way nature reveals itself in multitudes and multiplicities. Repeats of a single gesture, rows of periwinkles and daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace, multiples of drawings in columns and grids, are another way to invent an installation.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Holy Shoe

Missed posting last Monday - it's too summer in Maine - but I did have a thought resulting from having heard an excellent "fireside chat" between the Farnsworth Art Museum's Roger Dell and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For a while the discussion centered around "the whole issue of curatorial independence" which can be something of a headache for directors. When the phrase was uttered, I must have been in some sort of synesthetic mode because what I heard was "the holy shoe of curatorial independence." Or was that "holey shoe?" I think of saints and beggars. Curators may be either or both. Can't go very far with that thought, but I can report on my ducks. Last week the mother ended up dead in the ditch, and of the eight now teenage offspring, only five remained. I suspect a run-in with a truck. And today it appears that one of the five lies flattened in the road. No one's going to make way for ducklings on Route One.

image courtesy of Flickr

Monday, July 20, 2009

Frog Pond

Walking around the rim of the pond tonight I counted 9 frogs. Now and then I heard a vrump and a ribbit that gave away the presence of other frogs under the rocks.

Is there a Maine aesthetic that can be sussed out, even in the work of artists who live far away? Were they born here? Did they spend time at Skowhegan, or simply dip a toe in the waters of some summer camp at Pemadumcook Lake? I think the experience of place is indelibly imprinted in an artist’s work no matter how far she may roam. And I don’t believe you have to be born here to be inoculated with the germ.

The giveaway in an artist’s work could be the green-orange matrix operative in his paintings. It could be the love of water, because you’ll never die of thirst in Maine. It could be the certain light that inhabits Alex Katz’s paintings. It could be that it’s always landscape bound. We have more landscape here than anything else, and so even abstraction, for instance the complexity of line in Fred Lynch and Anna Hepler’s drawings, is derived from the confusion of natural phenomena that we see around us every day. If you’ve read this far, I’d really like to know your thoughts on the subject, and whether there are other operative motivations than landscape.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Landscape art is not a zzzzzzzzz

Landscape remains one of the great subjects of art even though it’s no longer thought relevant to paint a scene of what’s seen. The artist for whom landscape is inspiration has to actively enter the dialogue with other forms of contemporary art than painting. Hamish Fulton takes long walks. Christo and Jeanne Claude stage installations in significant places like Central Park and Berlin. Environmental interventions (eco-ventions)are the preferred way of calling attention to the abuses contributing to global warming.

Yet it remains true that for us as visual artists, the only way to give lasting expression to our feelings about the landscape is through the visual formalities of drawing and painting. So now instead of painting scenes, we paint paintings based on what we’ve done. Process is product. Nancy Manter is a case in point. Her process is to make marks not on paper or on canvas but in the landscape itself, and then to photograph the marks. Andy Goldsworthy has done this for many years, but Manter does not stop at photo-documentation. She uses the photographs as a matrix for some very sophisticated imagery developed with distemper and collage on dibond aluminum panels. Ice, mud and water are the canvases in which she incises gestural abstractions; the collaged and painted extrapolations appear to be as un-programmed as the natural world itself, but the visual choices she has made are calculated to make us notice that world afresh.

Out on Moody Mountain this weekend I was momentarily mesmerized by the sough of the wind in the trees. It had some of the effect of looking at a Manter painting, with the difference that wind is up there in the air, whereas a Manter painting is like feeling the rush and slip of water over mud.

The exhibition remains on view at Waterfall Arts in Belfast through August 28.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Some Portland Elements

A man calls to the sea and the sea answers. A man’s voice sends out messages and the sea responds. The sea responds with a force all out of proportion to the songs of the man. The sea is an uncontrollable force, with a song of its own that would drown any human voice, except that the man’s voice has doubled and tripled over on itself and can still be heard in the troughs of the waves. I thought of Shackleton and his men on the South Georgia Sea. I thought of the voice of God sounding over the darkness of the deep. I thought of the Hindu concept of vac, akin to the Greek concept of logos, and I thought, “in the beginning was the Word.” The next day I went to the Portland Observatory, heard the story of the great Portland conflagration of 1866 and looked out from the observatory deck toward the sea hidden by a fog that moved across the landscape as though it were smoke from a dying fire.

The man who daily calls forth the sea is Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay. His video The Same Problem is currently on view at MECA. The Portland Observatory is located on Congress Street on Munjoy Hill and offers tours to the very top.

Photo from the observatory deck by Sean Flaim.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Geanticlines and Slumps

Deduction from facebook posts: It’s hot in Texas and California. Not here though. We are getting ready to build an ark. It has surely rained for forty days now, and no signs of stopping. Was Noah’s flood a tsunami, or an expansion of the Black Sea? Geological evidence provides clues but no answers. Reading about geology, I’ve learned about regoliths, orogenies, geanticlines and slumps. I’m trying to work out a new group of installations based on sedimentary rock, and until I do it’s slow blogging. Thoughts like stones sliding along on a thin lubricant of salt, piling up at the base of the slope, in gravitational tectonics of the mind.

We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realise that their stories are one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace or pigsty.
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.
-Hugh McDiarmid

Monday, June 22, 2009

Oh Ye of Little Faith

The phoebes have three very hungry, very orange mouths to feed. The duck and her seven ducklings are taking the path up from the pond. And to think that I, for weeks now, have doubted even the existence of the mother duck, so well had she hidden herself, though her nest must be close by the creek.

In his book Earth: an Intimate History, Richard Fortey writes about tectonics and the fault line where Africa and Europe meet. All the alps of Europe were squeezed out of a seam in the earth no more the twenty kilometers wide, and extruded northward like pasta or spaetzle, in layers and layers of metamorphic rock. It’s a similar fascination to me that a sweater can be made from a long piece of string, or that babies arrive from tiny blobs of genetic material.

As I hope to breach the current impasse in my studio practice, perhaps it’s not too much to wish that something be building below the surface of my thinking to come forth in a rush of inspiration, or hatch like ducklings in seven permutations of a single mother concept. What power keeps the baby phoebe stock-still on the edge of the nest til it’s ready to fly?

Monday, June 15, 2009

On Route One-A

I feel obligated by my own sense of duty not to skip another week of blogging, but it is after all, as of next week, summer, and instead of racking up shows that I’ve seen, I give you this: three moose, various ducks one of whom is utterly comfortable begging for a handout, tadpoles and frogs a go go, just tonight a deer in the driveway, and 4:30 A.M. wake-up calls by a very loud robin. Such is the life of the Maine artist on Route One. It’s a wonder I ever get to the studio.

But I do, and I also made it up Route One-A to Bangor today to the University of Maine Museum of Art to catch Vessels Absent, Aaron Stephan’s exhibit of humanoids cum packing crates, arranged like spectators at an art exhibit. Aaron’s work is born at the intersection of art criticism and craft. What is art, anyway? Is it the ability to make objects, or the gift of allowing those objects to comment on themselves and on art in general?

The packing crates reminded me of Mark Tansey’s “The Innocent Eye,” but I wondered too about the spillage of shredded paper at the base of each crate. Are one’s thoughts about art always so transparently “out there” for other spectators to see? As I pondered the question, I found myself standing contraposto just like one of the packing crates. And I can't leave without noting that the ink drawings in multiples of 64 comment not only on their old master sources and on Andy Warhol, but also on every artist's struggle to get it right.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Participatory Art

According to Dave Hickey in The Invisible Dragon, a book of essays on beauty I’m currently reading, all art up until the seventeenth century was participatory. The people who looked at paintings back then believed in the sacredness of the subject depicted, or had a window into another world of which they felt a part. These days, we look on painting's subjects with dispassion. To follow Hickey’s thread, artists have come up with other ways to get us involved in their art, performance and installations being two such methods.

Aesthetics are inherent in work where the artist is not out to create beauty, but to demonstrate an abstract principle. Take for instance the principle of modulation. Installation artist Amy Stacey Curtis theorizes modulation by putting a rainbow-colored piece of paper inside a tin can, setting the can on the floor, and having her audience walk around it so that the color inside the can is seen to change from red to yellow to green to blue to red. But just as one human does not make a race, so one tin can cannot not give the full effect of color modulation, and the completed installation, exhibited in Brunswick, Maine in 2004, consisted of a circle of 2,304 cans, around which viewers were asked to walk slowly and meditatively. A later version was over 8,000 cans big.

The larger principle supporting Curtis’ work is that everything we humans do affects everything and everyone else. The installation pieces in Curtis’ solo biennials are participatory, as for instance a floor maze where persons entering and leaving in orderly progression emit random sounds, so that the result is something like a flattened tower of babble. In another, viewers walking a line next to a series of pendulums cause the pendulums to sway. No man is an island, but that he ripples the air where he goes. In yet another, photo overlays of many faces make one believable androgynous face.

Curtis examines chaos, not the blow-em-up variety, but a more subtle dis-order that is orderly in its affect. Think of chaos not as a cataclysmic disruption but as gentle revolution: order>chaos>order>chaos>order. As participants in her installations, we combine and uncombine elements, from pattern to random and back again. Installations are made and unmade, labor intensive, maximal in numbers of components, zen-minimal in concept, the actions deceptively simple to perform.

And where the biennials happen is also important. The unused mills Curtis chooses for her installations carry vestigial reminders of multiples of humans performing repetitive tasks. For a complete rundown on the biennials, visit her website and check out her youtube video.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Responsibilities of Art

"In the meantime, Neto's vast playpen is a good reminder that there are art worlds within art worlds and fields of 'otherness' not yet conquered because we stay too focused on what peaks and speaks (or used to peak) in auction houses."

"Many of our artists, suffering the repercussions of this desacralized mentality, have pretended for some time now that painting is merely a way of solving formal problems. The total opposition between art and life that formalism proposes exempts art from its moral tasks."

The first quote is from John Perreault's Artopia blog, and the second from Suzi Gablik's book, Has Modernism Failed?. Twenty-five years separate the two. Are the artists who play in the participatory fields of otherness the same ones who have re-sacralized art by restoring its moral tasks? In 1984, Gablik was complaining about the lack of moral and ethical positions taken by contemporary (Western) art, a lack which resulted from our producer/consumer society in which the individual's desires trumped the common good.

I'm also reading The Invisible Dragon by Dave Hickey. This book is a group of essays on beauty originally published in 1993, and occasioned by "the plague of intellectual dishonesty that infected every aspect of the controversy surrounding the public exhibition" of Robert Mapplethorpe's pornographic photographs. Again, a text about the function of images and the responsibilities of the artist. Would the great art of the Renaissance have remained so great to this day, had it not once addressed the moral issues of its time?

Is art that refuses to address life and the human condition ultimately destined for the trashcan? Does every artist have a moral responsibility to the rest of humanity? I'm not arguing for any particular brand of morality, just making a roundabout case against indifference, and looking for art that engages - intelligently and passionately - what it means to be human.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Flaying of Dudley

If you’re looking to incite discussion on facebook, you should become a fan of Julian Schnabel. In the melee I’ve forgotten now which of my fb friends had steered me in that direction, but I know for certain the friends who think I’m wrong-headed. What I said was that I’ve always liked hubris when it’s art-driven, and that I thought The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. I did not say I like Schnabel’s paintings. The plates on velvet never lived up to Schnabel’s ambition or to the hype he generated for them, but I do remember liking il cardinale if that’s indeed what he was, painted on the ceiling of a portico at PS 1, above a refectory table. There was an unintended existential vacuum that magnified the Renaissance antecedents of the space.

So what is hubris?? Marsyas had it. It’s presumption, originally toward the gods, that one is better than one’s betters. A long time ago, in the Art Starry Eighties, Schnabel set himself up as the peer of Duccio, Giotto and van Gogh. Things have calmed down some since. Schnabel is acknowledged to be a better film maker than painter or real estate mogul. Lesser lights like Damien Hirst have come and almost gone, John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage have had their moment, and Jeff Koons is making accessible balloon dogs instead of unfathomable basketballs in water tanks. Art is having an extended moment of anti-heroism, which is not to say that artists’ egos have ceased to exist, only that it’s become unfashionable to display them.

But I like poor flayed Marsyas for believing that he could, even when it turned out he couldn’t. Apollo’s such a buzzkill.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Run for the Roses

So Susan has thrown down the gauntlet. Write about the Kentucky Derby and bring it around to art, she said. If you watched the Derby Saturday, you know that Calvin Borel’s victory on Mine That Bird was the second biggest upset in the Derby’s history. You should read the whole story here, but in a nutshell, what happened was that Borel and his horse, a gelding from nowheresville and a 50-1 long shot, stumbled out of the gate, came from way behind, squeaked through a narrow opening on the rail, and won the race by six and a quarter lengths. About that narrow opening - “I wasn’t worried,” Borel said. “He’s a small horse and I knew I could squeeze him through.”

As a kid growing up in Kentucky, I knew the names of Derby winners long before I ever heard of Pollock, Picasso or Van Gogh. Aristides, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Citation – all the romance of horse racing is tied up with the magic that happens when a horse and rider surge through the pack and across the finish line into history. In spite of the millions of dollars spent and earned in races these days, it’s still not about the money thing.

The wraparound is not some sentimental drivel about art being an equally wonderful and romantic pursuit to which money is only a corollary. Nope – it’s cut and dried a question of time. The fact of the matter is that a three-year-old gets a single less-than-two-minute crack at winning the Derby, and the win can neither be faked nor bought. By contrast, an artist can fake or buy his way right to the top of the heap, and only the passing of years can out the truth.

Monday, April 27, 2009

By Any Other Name

Up until recently I only knew of James Lee Byars (1932-1997) as someone who had dated a friend of mine. One degree of separation was not enough to tell me anything about the man as an artist, but I met him – so to speak - in February in the company of Joseph Beuys, and now he pops up everywhere. He’s in the New York Cool show at Bowdoin College with a couple of works on paper that don’t really do much, out of context as they are, but there’s a stronger message in a video produced by the Kunstmuseum in Bern. The show there will travel to the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art this Fall. (I hope I’m right about that – the Internet is so often deceiving about dates.) Byars always had more cred in Europe than in this country, but his ball of roses is exquisite, his gold room is stunning, and, given the ephemeralness of his performances, the sight of 100 little children running around in gold capes (“little points of light” according to the curator, Susanne Friedli) has a certain poignancy. The gold room reminds me of another artist whose work deals with spirituality and ephemerality: Montien Boonma. Boonma (1953-2000) was a Thai artist whose “House of Hope,” made of beads, invokes the walking Buddha and freedom from fear. We're invited to step inside. And I wonder as I wander why beauty triggers thoughts of ephemerality and vice versa. Is beauty always fleeting?

Writing for the Telegraph, Richard Dorment has this to say about the ball of roses. “In Rose Table Perfect, first made in 1989, a ball made out of 3,333 red roses sits on the gallery floor. On the opening night when the flowers were fresh, the sight and the scent must have been overpowering. When I saw it last week, the roses had died and the dark orb was the colour of coagulated blood. Simple as it is, in this one piece Byars sums up in purest form his awareness that beauty is inseparable from death and decay.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

Way Cool Art

Just as I’m reading Thomas Crow’s The Rise of the Sixties, I learned Saturday that there’s a great new show called New York Cool at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. As everyone knows by now, the Sixties actually began in the Fifties, and there’s a painting by Adolph Gottlieb, Circular, from 1960, that’s light years more alive than its catalog reproduction would have one believe. The same can be said for Helen Frankenthaler’s Seaside with Dunes, from 1962, and for Yayoi Kusama’s No. Red A, 1960. One of the hallmarks of Sixties art was that it was cooler and less personal than the Abstract Expressionism that preceded it, but these three paintings, while not announcing their makers’ egos, are anything but cool. Red’s a hot color. Oil’s a hot medium. And these three paintings have both.

New York Cool, the catalog, for the show which traveled from New York University, has reproductions of all the artworks plus a number of essays I’m looking forward to reading when I finish Crow’s book, which is an easy read and a good introduction to the period and its artists. Crow gives us a time line beginning in 1954, when Rauschenberg began his Combine series, also the year Matisse died. The next year, James Dean was fatally injured when he crashed his Porsche, and the year after that, Jackson Pollock ran his car into a tree and Johnny Cash recorded I Walk the Line. Hard to imagine now that these beginnings and endings happened within a mere 11 years of the end of World War II, an event that seems locked in another time and place. Strange too how art remains fresh and the rest of history gets all musty.

There is a theory that no space-time continuum exists, and that events are making themselves as they happen, only to disappear moments later. What this means for art, I have no idea.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Prickly Aesthetics

Three pincushion cacti lived with me in New York, and in an effort to maintain the vibe, I’ve got a couple of new ones here. The cactus on the dining room table is sort of endearing, if that’s possible. However, I don’t want to test it by reaching out to touch it. The one on my work desk is different. It looks like a lot of tiny green fluted pincushions grafted together. This is a different aesthetic, which brings me to an online chat I’ve been having recently on whether aesthetics can fail. Is this cactus a failure? I don’t think so, because I maintain that aesthetics as a branch of philosophy or a set of principles, according to which a prickly artist or a pincushion cactus might operate, exists a priori and cannot be altered. Can an artist deliberately fail in his/her attempts at aesthetic renderings? Again, I don’t think so. The ontology behind the impulse to fail ensures that failing to succeed is to have succeeded.

There is a related issue, which is whether one can deliberately make something ugly. This requires a narrow definition of aesthetics as beautiful or pleasing, and in this case the answer is yes, one can make something that most people would agree is ugly (failed). Roses are thought to be more pleasing than cactus, a Vermeer painting more pleasing than a Manzoni can of crap. Personally, I like both roses and cactus, and expanded definitions.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Three Ways of Being Small

I'm remembering three memorable productions I saw recently. One was Mabou Mines DollHouse, an adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, at Saint Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo. The set was scaled down to the male actors, who were midgets. The women were tall, but spoke with tiny voices and Norwegian accents. On Mabou Mines web page, we read that Director Lee Breuer "turns Ibsen*s mythic feminist anthem on its head by physicalizing the equation of Power and Scale. Torvald, Rank and Krogstad, (the men), are all played by actors whose heights range from 40 to 53 inches. Nora and Kristine are tall and Helene, the maid, is a full 6 feet. Nothing dramatizes Ibsen's patriarchal point more clearly than the image of these little men dominating and commanding women one and a half times their size in a playhouse size doll house." The stuff of bad dreams that night for me and my friends, you betcha.

Second production: The Awaji Puppet Theater Company presented a group of traditional plays at the Japan Society. This was Bunraku, where all the puppets, which are 3 feet tall, are manipulated by three men dressed entirely in black, who somehow see through or in spite of the full hoods they wear. The men represent the shadow side of a world in which the puppets, who do not speak, through masks that do not move, are reality.

Third: Laurie Anderson is currently at Location One in Soho, through May 2. But Laurie is only a few inches high, seated in an armchair in a corner of a darkened room. Her dog is with her. They are 3-D projections of the real thing, and after you've been in the room for a while and your eyes have become accustomed to the dark and you hear Laurie tell her story, it dawns on you that you are a giant, looking down at her from your great height (in my case, 5'2"), and that you represent the terror that comes from the air, the vultures circling, the planes, as in "here come the planes, they're American planes, made in America." From the Air, as the installation is titled, is about disembodiment, hers and yours.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hot Rocks

A quick one this one - but a good one. Last week marked the 1 year anniversary of my consistent blogging. In the past year, I have written about the weather, the state of my piece of ground in Maine, and the art world in general. I plan to keep right on with that: it's cold and rainy, here in Maine there's still some snow on the ground, and the last show I saw before leaving Brooklyn was at the Japan Society.

KRAZY! is a really fun show that gives an overview of the serious pursuit of Manga. I now have a much better idea of the breadth of Manga and Anime subject matter and visual imagery. Not everything is shootem up blowem up sex and violence. The most unexpected part of this exhibition, though, is the house of comic books - bookshelves in the round, with a door to the inside, so that you and your small inner self can go inside, sit down, and read or be read to. I also see the thread that runs from ukiyo-e hanga to Manga, and this will be fun to explore now that I'm back in my studio. Get ready for rocks that rock and some hot color.

Oh, and one more thing. I love languages, and the book Japanese in Mangaland was too tempting to resist. From now on, I'll be playing with Japanese characters too, hehehe.

KRAZY! is up through June 14. Konnichiwa Friends and Family Tours on the second Saturday of every month.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lots of Art

Just give me art, lots of art, lots of starry nights and oh – Martin Kippenberger. He produced lots of art, and lots of it is now at MOMA through May 11 (The Problem Perspective). New York Magazine calls him “the artist who did everything.” When I was growing up in Lexington, KY, there were no museums to go to, no Kippenbergers to see, but I drew my own responses to the world around me: a smiley Jesus on the cross (religion), birds nesting (nature), a horse being sick at both ends (societal awareness). So I recognize a kindred spirit in Kippenberger, who came up with even better, more skewed responses: Fred the Frog crucified, a fake birch forest littered with uppers and downers, and Santa’s evil twin, Knecht Ruprecht.

Kippenberger worked fast and loose and prolifically, embracing most of the media and forms of visual art extant at the time. Too bad that digital art forms were then just in their infancy. Wall text at MOMA speaks of his “itinerant sensibility,” and the recent reviews of the show in Art in America, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, and John Perreault’s Artopia blog, all place him in the context of post-war German art. He out-did Richter, faced down Beuys, and made fun of Picasso (I know, Picasso’s not German, but he was there to be called on the Teppich).

And yet, Kippenberger himself was German in his expression, and never more so than as an incredibly accomplished painter and draftsman. He refers to or anticipates most of contemporary painting, without losing himself in the process. In addition to stabs at Richter, Beuys and Polke, I found correspondances to Hockney and Wegman, and reminders of Francis Bacon. There is a beautiful series of watercolors featuring a magnifying glass, and a range of drawings on hotel stationery, done over the years, that make political and social points. In the end, at the end of his life, he did a group of drawings and paintings based on Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. They are baroque in their intensity and outdo Gericault in their existential horror. Texts on two of the paintings announce “Je suis meduse” and “The End.” And so, in both cases, it was.

Monday, March 16, 2009


If they weren’t so small they’d kill you. From my 3rd floor window in Carroll Gardens I’m watching a convention of twelve cats, loosely organizing themselves cat fashion in the neighbor’s back yard. Six seem to be related, because they’re all grey with ringed tails. Two others are Siamese. Two are black, one with boots. Three walk the top rail of a chain link fence. Now a decision has been made to change backyards. Some cats go over the fence, some through the hole below. They re-convene. Tails twitch. A victim has been chosen, or maybe that cat’s “IT” because all the others join in to chase it under the euonymus. Cat fight. Yowling. Everybody scatters. Reorganization in smaller breakout groups has occurred. Do cats think about art?

Most of the time, an art magazine arrives in my mailbox and I throw it into the mix of printed matter I will later slog through to feel better informed. This month’s Art in America International Review is an exception. I get at it right away, because It’s full of images that actually work. They have something to say. They bear extended looking. Kamrooz Aram’s paintings address the intersection of video games and Persian miniatures. Steve McQueen and Hannah Wilke are here. There’s a feature on Martin Kippenberger, whose show I plan to see at MOMA very soon. And a quote that really grabbed me, because it was both a YES! and a DUH – was this about Shepard Fairey’s designs. “Ironically, Fairey’s designs, which are often esthetic flirtations with the propaganda graphics and exhortations of communist Russia, China and Cuba, are much in demand in the corporate world.” Why is that? Not only is the message behind the images spelled out (“These sunsets are to die for,” “OBEY” and “HOPE”), but beyond that, the grim color and heavy-handed forms exactly mirror the mental images inhabiting the heads of corporate wonks.

Shepard Fairey’s work is on view in Boston through August 16, and in spite of his popularity with corporate types, Boston cops have not been so thrilled. You’d think that a city that started off by throwing tea into the harbor would have a soft spot for political messages, but apparently that’s not the case.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Art Market – Not So Much

The Armory Show was this weekend, and having walked my feet off getting there and back, plus having recently taken in the ADAA Art Fair, I had thought to rant about the commodification of art. You do get to see a great range of gallery offerings in both venues, and, dollar consideratiions aside, most of it’s quite good. There are booths devoted to single artists (Gerhard Richter and Donald Sultan at ADAA), and booths devoted to single subjects (Dieu Donne for handmade paper at the Armory). But try as I might, I cannot warm up to art as a commodity and I have nothing whatsoever to say about the current state of the art market. I like to be one on one with a work of art and think of it as connected to its maker rather than as something to which a price tag has been attached. It doesn’t matter to me that if I had enough money I could consider owning it. I’m happy to look. I got really happy looking at some elegantly painted portraits by Elizabeth Peyton (see my December 1 blog), and admired the skilled draftsmanship of Danica Phelps at the Lower East Side Printshop booth. Dubuffet always makes me want to go out and play in the mud – and that’s a good thing. Louise Bourgeois doesn’t necessarily make me happy, but she does make me want to challenge myself, a very good thing indeed. There’s a razor’s edge to her work that will never appear in mine, but I like knowing that she can slice up my emotions with it. Yayoi Kusama’s variations on disorientation bring me up short every time, no matter what the medium, and I love the way that happens. But with so much talent, why does Richter pull his punches in favor of showing off his squeegee techniques? I’m not so happy about that because his doing so is market-motivated, about which I said I had nothing to say, but maybe I was wrong. Hmmmmmmm.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sapolio goes viral, Snow does the same

"The snow the snow the beautiful snow it brightens the world like Sapolio." I learned this jingle/meme when I was a little kid, and it's right at the front of my brain every time I watch it snow, as it's doing - AGAIN - here in Maine. It even snowed in Alabama. Meetings have been canceled, driveway as yet unplowed. Wondering whether I had spelled Sapolio correctly, I came across this April 6, 1936 article in Time, which makes it clear that Sapolio was one of the pioneers of modern marketing, with branding in Europe as well as the US. Here's another jingle, a riff on Gilbert and Sullivan from the archives at Boise State:

When I was a lad, I served a term
As office boy to an attorney's firm;
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the ruler of the Queen's Navee,
But I couldn't have polished it bright I know
If I had not used SAPOLIO.

So these days, it's Google, Twitter and Facebook that get us around, and as soon as I'm back in New York, I'll check out the old Sapolio factory at West and Bank Streets. As I already know from Google street views, it's a handsome old building, on the west bank (where else) of Manhattan.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Chyrenheppa and Me

Chyrenheppa Diefendorf, my alter ego and art interviewer, joined me recently for a trip to Chelsea to look at landscape art. “We’ve tramped all up and down from 19th Street to 26th,” she said. “Did you think anything was worth seeing?” And I replied that yes, I did, but it was not painting as I had hoped. It was photography.

CD: why had you hoped for painting?
DZ: because I’m always trying to define for myself the relevance of landscape painting. I’m not sure that a landscape painting is anything other than reportage, a look through the window at the scene beyond.
CD: What about those really big paintings we saw at Stellan Holm in Day-Glo colors that are “spanning the compositional formalism of the Hudson River School to a reverence for nature akin to Joseph Beuys’?” Surely the artist get some creds for linking to Beuys?
DZ: For starters, I get put off the art when the statement is poorly written. But there was a certain likeable-ness about the paintings, just nothing new to add to the dialogue.
CD: putting aside the question of why you want landscape painting to be something other than what it’s always been, did you feel the photography had anything more to offer?
DZ: Well, right off, photography is a look through a window, or lens, no matter how you manipulate it later on. So in his Dark Forest prints, Japanese artist Keita Sugiura starts by looking, but in the extrapolation of the camera’s information, goes far beyond that to create a world of richly dense darks and flickering lights that might have been painted but was not.
CD: scuse me?
DZ: Extrapolation - loosely put, extending the application of a method to an unknown conclusion based on trends in the known data. The going beyond was also there in the Kusho “writing in the sky” photographs at Bruce Silverstein. Watching the microlevel of India ink and water at the moment of their convergence is only possible thanks to technology that allows the photographic recording of phenomena within 7,500th of a second. But the result, again, almost fooled me into thinking it was a painting, just one that no human could have pulled off.
CD: sounds less like looking through a window and more like process.
DZ: You’re right, Chyrenheppa, and that’s what I want.

Brendan Cass at Stellan Holm through March 4
Keita Sugiura at Max Protetch closed February 21
Shinichi Maruyama at Bruce Silverstein through March 7

Monday, February 16, 2009

La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi

This is the title of a full portrait phototype print of Joseph Beuys, and I remember the room where I first saw it years ago - on the end wall of a long and narrow gallery. I walked toward it, walked backward to the entrance, walked toward it again. And again. The feeling of my being approached by Beuys rather than vice versa has stayed with me. I saw it for the second time yesterday, in an ongoing exhibition of Beuys’ work at MOMA. It was not as beautifully sited, but the message is the same: We are the revolution. Beuys’ shamanistic stance and personal style bring meaning to what today, in most of his work, may seem obscure or even dated. Wall text refers to the “mythological, historical and personal relevance” of Beuys’ output, and sitting in front of five vitrines newly acquired by the museum, and surrounded by hordes of Sunday visitors, I was struck by the emptiness of those vitrines and their carefully chosen contents – the empty spaces surrounding the objects in the vitrines, and the psychological quiet that also seems to surround objects and vitrines. Nonetheless, Beuys is only as empty as your lack of imagination, and as rich and full as the symbolic and sacred worlds he refers to. Joseph Beuys: The Reader, published in 2007 by the MIT Press, was my first choice among the offerings of the Museum store on my way home.

So art is a catalyst for change, though art may be used to smother independence just as surely as it foments it. Also at MOMA, I came away from Arto Halonen’s documentary Shadow of the Holy Book, dismayed about big corporations’ complicity in the human rights violations in Turkmenistan, dismayed but not surprised at how revolutions can bring ill rather than good. Can artists be the revolution, or do the interests of global capitalism and big governments, using art for their own devious purposes, always have the upper hand? The Holy Book, by the way, is not the Bible, Koran or Torah, but the Ruhnama, a fabricated piece of propaganda supported by Daimler-Chrysler and John Deere, among other well-known corporate giants whose actions are in deliberate violation of their stated ethical standards.

And a final parting shot: judging by the checkout queue at the MOMA store, I would say that our own government missed a good bet when it deleted arts funding from the stimulus package.

some sites:
Joseph Beuys' La Rivoluzione siamo noi
The film
Update on the stimulus package

Monday, February 09, 2009

Reading The Road

Just last night, I finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and thought as I put it down, how often my work has been generated by walking, and by the impressions I’ve formed along the way. In Newfoundland, where I walked to learn the landscape, the scenery was so monotonous that I took to counting my steps just to stay motivated. Walking in Maine, where the bones of the earth are heaved up in most astonishing ways, I think about tectonics. Today I walked through the Brooklyn Museum, where a 4th Floor exhibit, Selections from American Art," reexamines landscape. There’s a hilarious quasi-sculptural painting, “Falling Bierstadt,” that answers my need as a painter to go up against the euphoria of 19th century landscape painting. And as always, I found Olafur Eliasson’s grid of photographs to be awfully two dimensional in more ways than one. I’m not a fan of his obvious iterations of what is all around us all the time. (Even in New York, all you have to do is look.) But the piece that grabbed me most and held me longest, and brings me back to The Road, was Terence Koh’s stack of large and small vitrines, some empty, some containing white objects recalling man’s inhumanity to man and its artifacts. McCarthy’s apocalyptic tale, in which few people and no other life forms remain, describes a world of “nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” Everything covered by blowing ash. Koh’s work, it would seem, has been to collect what remnants remain from that world, remnants finally washed clean by rain, and present them to us as reminders of what once was, or what may someday come to pass.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Painting in Winter

As the days get perceptibly longer and the temperatures fall, I spend more time in the studio, and for the first time since I began writing here, am going address some of what happens while I'm there. After all, what I want to uncover is an evolved way of painting the subject matter that interests me, and that subject matter remains, as it has for a long time, rocks and water. But subject matter is only the starting point, or perhaps not even that. It becomes a distant reference the deeper I get into any given painting. Painting is a process, and the physical act of moving paint around on a support has to be joined with patience and the use of appropriate technical tools. It's not enough to mix, shove and scrape the paint until an abstraction is produced that can be interpreted as some sort of recognizable image. It is also not good enough, to my mind, to resort to obvious narrative. In other words, I have to work harder - thinking about what I know of Matisse, De Kooning, and their descendants, Diebenkorn and Brown. Their work with spatial relationships and chromatic harmonies are informative, but not imitable. In a confrontation with a canvas, it's what makes me uncomfortable that counts.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A Saving Grace

Travel by air is a special kind of hell, but if I hadn’t flow through Philadelphia, and been stuck there overnight, I would have missed the three exhibitions in the F Terminal. Most airport art comes in two flavors: the oversize posters and scenic photographs that line the concourses and moving walkways, or the big public art projects, frequently mobiles, that are pleasant to look at but are not challenging art. Philadelphia does it differently.

My attention was caught first by the color and patterning in Andrea Packard’s fabric and paper collages of wooded landscapes. Somehow their complexities reminded me of David Driskell’s work, though the palette was entirely different. I was deep into these for a while before I realized that nearby, a group of paintings by Jackie Tileston created an equally magnetic space. Here, calligraphy and images borrowed from Chinese and Hindu sources combined with other elements to make dream-like spaces. The piece de resistance, one which tied Tileston’s work to Packard’s, was a lone three-dimensional tuft of fabric in an otherwise two-dimensional universe. In the third group of images, Florence Putterman’s black and white linocut narratives provided unintentional though perfectly possible story lines with which one might people the abstracted landscapes of the first two artists.

Each of these women has a substantial resume and a clear commitment to making art that matters. Andrea Packard teaches and is Director of the List Gallery at Swarthmore. Jackie Tileston has been awarded a Guggenheim and a Bellagio residency, and teaches at U Penn. Florence Putterman has received an NEA Grant, and has a long list of museum collections to her credit.

The Exhibitions Committee at the airport publishes a brochure detailing locations and projects throughout the airport’s terminals and I’m sorry I didn’t have the time and energy to get around to all of them. More airports around the country should think about offering stranded passengers the saving grace of serious art.